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Platform Paper 25
Taking the perspective of both dancer and critic, Erin Brannigan examines the increasing disciplinarity of contemporary Australian dance practice and discusses local developments in the context of global trends and their history. Such regulation is incongruous, she claims, in the face of the extraordinary cross-media diversity displayed by the leading choreographers abroad. The place of dance as a discrete discipline in both education and public performance has been hard won, she says, but now the accelerating move towards collaboration with other art forms is challenging the old disciplines and confusing the received rules of critical discourse and public funding. Adaptability, openness, collaboration, inclusiveness—these are the terms that define a discipline that is a far cry from the closed, inward-looking, exclusive profile so often implied by the term ‘contemporary dance’. How can the concept of ‘technique’ be refigured to enable the openness and collaboration now apparent in the profession? How can we embrace the extraordinary opportunities opened to artists by the digital moving image as a vehicle for dance?
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While there has been much discussion about interdisciplinarity in dance theory, it is ironic—and surprising—that there has been so little about the creative operations of interdisciplinary practice. It is, after all, the developments in practice that have prompted the theory
Amanda Card lectures in the department of Performance studies, university of sydney. Her areas of research include dance and performance histories, cross-cultural and hybrid performance, and theories of embodiment. she is the author of Platform Papers 8, Body for Hire? The State of Dance in Australia.
Erin Brannigan's ability to draw out and draw upon the articulate reflections of contemporary performance makers has been regularly displayed in her contributions to the contemporary arts magazine RealTime. They are again on display in her Currency House Platform Paper, No.25, where she engages in eloquent reflections that could be identified as the work of a good journalist. But her process is also akin to the expertise of an anthropologist: a researcher who engages in 'field work' and takes the time to ask of her informants 'What do you think you're doing?' For me, this is what makes her essay a most exciting, stimulating and useful contribution to the discussion of local dance practice. Particularly in the sections on 'Interdisciplinary continuity' and 'Interdisciplinary dance in Australia', Erin deftly frames and unpacks the reflections of artists to reveal their working practices and illuminate her main concerns: to examine the nexus between the discipline of dance, the interdisciplinary nature of dance-making, and the generative contribution made by movement practices to the development of interdisciplinary performance more generally. The great strength of this section of the essay is the way her analysis of what artists do and say offers explanation of, and potential solace to, the nagging concern that many dance makers have with regard to the disciplinary and social relevance of their work. I would very much like to see Erin expand this avenue of reflection over the coming years: it reveals a great deal not only about how dancers conduct embodied research, but also how they might think about the nexus between the discipline and interdisplinarity.
I particularly agree with Erin when she states: 'While there has been much discussion about interdisciplinarity in dance theory, it is ironic-and surprising-that there has been so little about the creative operations of interdisciplinary practice' (p.25). Ironic, yes, but perhaps not all that surprising. Academics have often been guilty of speaking of and to a performance practice without a sense of obliged recourse to the ideas and articulations of those who create those performances. Erin has always had a clear understanding of the potential for revelatory reflections, and the obligation to seek such reflections from those engaged in choreographic practices who are essentially, as she makes clear, engaged in practice-based research processes.
There are some great moments in this essay, particularly when Erin frames and then unpacks the words of the artists she has chosen to assist her in the investigation of the relationships between what is specific to dance and what is inherently and potentially interdisciplinary about the form. For example, she describes Helen Herbertson's Sunstruck, simply and succinctly, and then quotes Helen herself: 'I know its strange and it's not a story and there's not a huge amount to hang on to, but if you can come to it, then you can really get a lot out of it.' Erin then unpacks this by asserting that 'the moving body can often leave little to "hang on to"' but this 'seems to be the strength of this kind of work: a performance event that is based on the deep complexity of the moving bodies […] but expands to say something about human relationships' (p. 33).
Although Erin is aware of the manner in which dance artists have engaged with contemporary theory in their development of performance work-particularly with the move to 'conceptual dance'-here she highlights the manner in which breach, crisis and resolution have been identified and dealt with within choreographic composition, which then 'forces the shift in theory and criticism' (p.26). This is an important distinction, and it is made possible by Erin's concentration on what dance practitioners do and what they say about what they do.
The essay is not about all dance work at all times. Ultimately its aim is to invigorate a discussion about dance that negotiates a 'path between an overtly interdisciplinary approach to the mise en scène and a commitment to choreographic research and craft' (p.26). But, for Erin, it is not enough simply to reverse the usual hierarchy, as so often happens in academic writing, where the choreography becomes 'the dominating force that calls all the other elements of the mise en scène to order' (p.27). Instead, she argues for an '"unhierarchized" heterogeneity', a much more useful (if less comfortable) position from which to explore the relationship between disciplines and interdisciplinarity.
I was very satisfied by the first forty pages of this essay. However, its final section, 'Training future dance artists', caused me some frustration. So successfully had Erin identified a lack of discussion around 'the creative operations of interdisciplinary practice' and, coupled with her insightful unpicking of this apparent lack through an exploration of the 'compositional labour of interdisciplinarity in contemporary dance' (p.51), that I hoped she would end by proposing some kind of resolution. Instead I was disappointed that she wanted to discuss the state of tertiary institutional practices in this country.
Reading these last pages made me wonder why so many of us (myself included) return, again and again, to the question of institutional training. Of course, we are concerned with ways in which we can help dance flourish with/without/within the institutions that we have/do not have and what their relevance is to the development of dance in more public forums and in relation to other art forms. Erin might have been better advised to leave this discussion to the Elizabeth Dempster paper from which she quotes, or to others who have discussed this problem before her. The essay should perhaps have ended by pointing to some resolution of the important process that the discussion had instigated, a process I believe has the potential to help resolve all those idiosyncratic disturbances that see so many dance makers hovering on the brink of distrust-concerned with the revelation and recognition of relevance for and within their discipline, but also drawn, if Erin is correct, to the inevitability of their interdisciplinarity.
But it may well be impossible to avoid the subject of dance in tertiary education in NSW, when we are given licence to 'talk' about dance in a public forum. As Erin reminds us, there has been a slash-and-burn process at work in this state over the last 15 years. I wouldn't like to count how many times members of the dance community have been called upon to argue for the development, redevelopment, redeployment or demise of dance (and other performance-directed courses) in the NSW-based tertiary system.
Indeed, I note with surprise, regret (and irony) that another such occasion has arisen. The publication of Erin Brannigan's essay coincides with the announcement that the University of NSW will not appoint to the new senior position in Dance at the School of English, Media and Performing Arts. The school/university administration are backing away from their former commitment to develop dance at the Kensington Campus. Instead of being expanded and/or complemented, the Dance Education program is to be phased out-with the promise of yet more consultative talks about the form the teaching of dance might take at the University of NSW by 2012. Mmmm, where have I heard this before? Perhaps it was as the University of Western Sydney's Dance program, followed by its Acting program, slowly crumbled to dust after years of consultative processes? Of course, all institutions have the right to explore a variety of avenues in order to develop new structures that are relevant to the its local, national and international profile and, as they try once again to get it right, I wish the staff at the University of NSW the best of luck.
I hope, however, that, as the powers-that-be once again examine what their Dance program may or may not be, they take heed of what I regard as the most innovative and constructive section of Erin Brannigan's Platform Paper. As she reminds us, when she returns to her main argument at the end, the artists she talks about-Helen Herbertson, Gideon Oberzanek, Lucy Guerin, Tess de Quincey, Narelle Benjamin, Ros Chrisp, Julie-Anne Long, Nalina Wait, Sue Healey (and she could have added many others) are 'living proof' that dance (disciplined, undisciplined and interdisciplinary) begins with 'somatic, embodied knowledge and intense physical training' (p.46) in no particular, but very specific, forms of movement practice. The important thing, as Lucy Guerin says, is not the kind of practice practised, but that whatever it is should be an 'intense and defined and articulate physical practice'. At this point the essay is consistent with, or at least returns to, its primary (and, to my mind, most interesting) theme: an exploration of the 'compositional labour of interdisciplinarity in contemporary dance and what this labour might reveal in favour of the choreographic as a body of knowledge that exceeds its disciplinary parameters' (p.51, emphasis in original). I can only encourage Erin to continue-to use her skills as researcher and writer to explore this 'compositional labour' of contemporary dance in the company of practitioners, as she has done so eloquently in Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the Twenty-first Century.
Julie-Anne Long is an independent dance artist based in sydney. she is currently dance curator at campbelltown arts centre and has recently completed a Phd in the school of English, Media and Performing Arts at the University of New South Wales.
Erin Brannigan's deeply considered Moving across Disciplines highlights the centrality of the art form of dance and the role played by dance artists in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and hybrid performance work. Her initial focus is on interdisciplinary performance outcomes, and offers excellent case studies that place Australian dance artists working across multidisciplinary practices in both a historical and contemporary international context. But it is in the final section of the essay that she reveals what in her view is most at stake. Here she turns to questions of dance training and, more specifically, the unstable state of, and inadequate opportunities for, tertiary dance training in New South Wales.
My own experience of tertiary dance training began in 1980, when I crossed the Tasman with a Solo Seal (the final ballet exam of the Royal Academy of Dancing) tucked under my belt to continue my formal training for a further three years at the Victorian College of the Arts, School of Dance. Initially I pursued my Betty Bun-Head dreams, but within a short time turned my attentions to the aspirations of a contemporary dancer. Following graduation I worked for two years in Canberra as a dancer with Human Veins Dance Theatre and in 1985 I moved to Sydney to take up a full-time contract as dancer/choreographer with Kai Tai Chan and the One Extra Company. The way to become a dancer is by 'doing', and in those days 'doing' was possible as fulltime, paid engagement. For the past twenty-five years I have survived through many different incarnations as a dancer, choreographer, performer, maker, teacher, mentor, curator and administrator. I currently call myself 'an independent dance artist'.
However, the performance work I currently make, and have been making for some time, does not utilise in any very obvious way the traditional classical and modern dance languages to which my early years were devoted. For the past decade reviewers have asked of my work: 'Why does she need dancers to do this?' and 'Is this really dance?' To which I reply: 'Why does it matter?' I am a dancer-once a dancer, always a dancer-I think choreographically, and the memory in and of my body, although not explicitly evident, is shaped by more than thirty years of dance training. It's not something of which I want to rid myself. In fact, I am proud of the discipline of dance that has made and continues to make me who I am. My body's history is crucial to the way I currently work as an artist and my dance training has provided me with a strong base from and against which to push. This dance legacy provides me with confidence in the execution of my craft, although from time to time it does make me anxious. Which brings me to what I see is the most urgent provocation of Brannigan's paper.
In light of the recent news that the University of New South Wales is reconsidering plans to develop a dedicated dance performance program, this essay, ironically, serves as a timely reminder of the value of the discipline of dance. Even though I have been, and remain, a vocal critic of the idea that in New South Wales we need a tertiary dance course preparing dancers for the profession, I am anxious that the specificities of the discipline of dance, especially dance-training systems and deep somatic knowledge that can only be acquired over many years of practice, will be undermined if dance is hijacked as a tool for other art forms to use in this interdisciplinary world. For me, part of the appeal of the dance landscape in Sydney is its diversity of training systems and the many influences that the professional sector draws from and engages with. However, I believe, as do choreographers Helen Herbertson and Lucy Guerin (quoted in Brannigan's essay), that the trained dancer brings crucial knowledge to choreographic practice and performance outcomes, even when required to execute minimal movement tasks. It is important to acknowledge that the majority of those 'dance/movement' artists who work in New South Wales have extensive training from somewhere else. Although Erin Brannigan's interest is in dance in the context of widespread interdisciplinarity, the message I take from her important essay is something she refers to as 'the bleedin' obvious', namely that 'we can't have interdisciplinarity without disciplinary specificity'.
Elizabeth Dempster is a senior lecturer in Performance studies at Victoria university, Melbourne, and co-editor of the journal Writings on dance. a former dancer/choreographer and founding member of dance exchange company, her choreographic work has been presented throughout australia and at dance umbrella, uk.
Erin Brannigan's Platform Paper dares to initiate a long overdue discussion of the role, meaning and character of discipline in dance in contemporary Australia. I say 'dares' because the term 'discipline', especially when it is combined with dance, has the potential to excite powerfully polarized opinion.
The essay moves forward and back around its topic and in its twists and turns it reminds me of the debates about modernism in dance, which so exercised dance scholars during the late 1980s. A particularly vigorous debate between the critics Sally Banes and Susan Manning conducted in the pages of The Drama Review turned on the question of dance's apparently anachronistic status in relation to other arts. Did the development of a modernist aesthetic in dance follow the same broad contours as those of other arts in the twentieth century, or had it evolved in an anomalous way? Is modern dance consistent with aesthetic modernism, or has it traced a different historical trajectory? Brannigan's essay similarly engages historically contested terrain.
It opens with a discussion of the rise of interdisciplinary arts practice over the past thirty years and the challenge that this development might present to disciplinary specificity. However, as Brannigan amply demonstrates, in dance, interdisciplinarity and disciplinary specificity are not always, or necessarily, opposed. In the ballet, for example, disciplinary specificity is both guarded and celebrated, and yet in its stage presentation interdisciplinarity is crucial, with the dance but one part of a spectacle integrating music, design and, to a lesser extent, narrative. In contemporary theatrical dance interdisciplinarity does not represent a break with the past, but more of a continuation and adaptation to contemporary circumstances of well-established habits of collaboration and exchange. An art form such as the ballet, which is confident in its disciplinary identity, has little to fear from the 'spectre of interdisciplinarity'. But a dance practice that is less certain of, or else unwilling to, acknowledge its provenance may well struggle to distinguish itself. And it is here that the imprecise, catchall term 'contemporary dance' is pulled into service. More of that presently.
According to Brannigan-and I agree with her-it is to twentieth-century modern dance that we must look 'to discover the essence of dance as a discipline', because this is the era when dance assumed an autonomy and economy of means, when the 'subject of dance (became) dancing itself'. However, in an essay by Sally Gardner, which Brannigan cites, the argument is persuasively advanced that modern dance is not disciplinary, at least not in the sense that Foucault might use that term. Unlike the discipline of ballet, modern dance is not predicated upon a rationalized technique, a system of generalizable principles or rules; it is not anonymous and unauthored, but is founded upon intimate, intercorporeal and personalized relationships between the dancer and the choreographer. And there's the conundrum: the dance form that might be said to define the identity of a discipline is in very important ways neither disciplinary nor, in all probability, professional either. Furthermore, it is not and never was 'contemporary'. Such a term disguises and confuses the difference between the two primary dance traditions in Western theatre. It also obscures the perhaps uncomfortable fact that there has been no decisive break with the classical legacy in Australia and that modern dance did not and has not developed as a distinct genre in this country. Ballet is our discipline. There, I've said it.
What constitutes disciplinarity in twenty-firstcentury dance is a subject in urgent need of discussion, with profound implications not only for the profession, but also for educators and audiences. As Brannigan notes, to invoke the interdisciplinary returns us to the disciplinary and, in the context of Australian dance, to a largely unresolved debate about how two aspects of the word 'discipline', understood both as a field of study, and as a regimen, a system of training and control, might be reconciled. In her seminal work Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance (1988), Susan Foster writes that 'making a dance and making a dancer are bound together'. It's hardly surprisingly then that there are real challenges facing curriculum designers in university dance departments today. Dance practice entails rigorous processes of body-based artistic inquiry, and engages values that are resistant to institutionalisation and that, I suspect, are incompatible with those of the contemporary university. But that's another story.
Dr Cheryl stock was head of dance at Queensland university of technology 2000-06 and is currently associate professor. she has served as national president of audance and Chair of the dance Board of the australia Council. as an artist she has created over 50 dance and theatre works and in 2003 received the lifetime achievement award at the australia dance awards for her work as a director, writer and leader in tertiary education.
Whilst there is much rhetoric around the theory of interdisciplinary practice, rarely is there any in-depth critique of what this might mean in the practice itself, particularly in the arts. Erin Brannigan in her paper, Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the Twenty-first Century, could have taken many approaches to dance working in an interdisciplinary context- such as integrating practices and perspectives from health, architecture or cognitive science. She chose, however, an arts-specific focus, with dance firmly at the centre and leading the discussion. Through a thoughtful, knowledgeable and at times provocative historical and philosophical analysis, Brannigan convincingly makes the case for her assertion that 'dance is increasingly the "host" for the most progressive interdisciplinary practices' (p.8). Her wide-ranging overview of dance artists and their work in the twentieth century-problematising the shifts around current somatic dance practices, highly stylised theatrical traditions and much in between-informs insightful discussion on how key conceptual underpinnings (what Brannigan calls 'the creative operations of interdisciplinary practice') are grounded in embodied disciplinary compositional processes. These, she argues, form the common ground on which interdisciplinarity rests. The particular working practices and astute observations of choreographers Obarzaneck, Guerin and Herbertson enliven the discussion with their voices, providing perceptive dance-led examples of the highly effective ways in which dance transforms a single art form into an integrated, hybridised interdisciplinary form.
There is, however, an ongoing and predictable tension that Brannigan and these choreographers identify; between the highly-specialised and focussed discipline specificity of dance and the open-ended conceptual, reflexive and creative enquiry necessary for moving across disciplines. This dilemma is also writ large in the section on speculative dance training for this century which embraces and somehow marries both demands.
Even an extended paper cannot hope to provide a comprehensive sweep of the topic of dance and interdisciplinarity, but in this essay the Melbourne-centric choice of dance artist interviews and the Sydney centric discussion of the particular challenges for dance training in Sydney seem slightly at odds with the more wide-ranging international reach of the early historical overview. In a twenty-first-century Australian dance context Sue Healey with her live work, film and installations, Garry Stewart and his collaborations with robotics and photography, Gavin Webber and Kate Champion with their mixed-media theatrical productions and Hellen Sky with her ongoing interrogation of generative and interactive performance, could provide other nuanced artist insights of dance moving across disciplines.
Perhaps this musing of omissions merely reflects a desire for more and longer debates and writings around the significance of dance as a leader in interdisciplinary practice, especially in Australia. Erin Brannigan has provided an important catalyst with her considered, complex and persuasive study which is a pleasure to ponder on. It should be on the reading list of every dance and creative arts course and disseminated widely through the industry.